The Instigator
RoyLatham
Pro (for)
Winning
20 Points
The Contender
meespr
Con (against)
Losing
10 Points

Radiometric Dating is Accurate

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Post Voting Period
The voting period for this debate has ended.
after 5 votes the winner is...
RoyLatham
Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 2/9/2009 Category: Science
Updated: 7 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 2,673 times Debate No: 6851
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (5)
Votes (5)

 

RoyLatham

Pro

Radiometric dating is the method of establishing the age of objects by measuring the levels of radioisotopes in the sample. The best known example is carbon dating. Carbon 14 is created by cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere. It decays to nitrogen 14 with a half life of 5730 years. C14 is continually being created and decaying, leading to an equilibrium state in the atmosphere. When the carbon dioxide, containing C14 as well as stable C12 and C13, is taken in by plants it is no longer exposed to the intense cosmic ray bombardment in the upper atmosphere, so the carbon 14 isotope decays without being replenished. Measuring the ratio of C14 to C12 and C13 therefore dates the organic matter for periods back to about eight half-lives of the isotope, 45,000 years. After a long enough time the minority isotope is in an amount too small to be measured.

There are about two dozen decay pairs used for dating. Uranium 235 decay to lead has a half-life of 713 million years, so it is well suited to dating the universe. other isotope pairs cover intermediate time periods between the spans for carbon 14 and uranium.

For the purposes of this debate, "accurate" means that 95% of the dating errors are within 10% of the measured date, within the time span for which the isotope pair is utilized. Since carbon dating depends upon variable cosmic ray intensity, a calibration curve is assumed to be applied to account for that. The actual accuracy of radiometric dating is about 2%, but there is no point in splitting hairs for this debate as to whether it is 2% or 3%. An error of 90% would, for example, still disprove Young Earth Creationism.

There are four reasons why radiometric data is known to be accurate:

1. It depends upon radioactive decay, which is known to be extremely stable, not influenced my chemical processes, and which can be measured quite accurately. Thus physical principle of the method is well established.

2. The dates obtained by radiometric dating are verified by independent methods, including dendrochronology (tree rings), varve chronology (sediment layers), ice cores, coral banding, speleotherms (cave formations), fission track dating, electron spin resonance dating, and other methods.

3. The dates obtained by different radiometric isotope pairs cross-check each other.

4. Trained scientists understand the limitations of radiometric methods and apply them as appropriate. By analogy, a stop watch will not keep accurate time if it is not wound, if it is not in good repair, or if the operator forgets to press the button. Methods are precise insofar as they are properly used.

A good explanation of all of the dating methods used for samples up to about 200,000 years old, together with their accuracies and references to the scientific literature is contained in

[1] Walker, Mike, "Quaternary Dating Methods," John Wiley & Sons, 2005

This debate is intended only for issues related to science, not for arguments from non-scientific reasons.
meespr

Con

Hello and good luck to my opponent.

It cannot be stated beyond a shadow of a doubt that Radiometric Dating (RD) is accurate. Young Earth Creationism (YEC) is equally as likely to be accurate, also your disclaimer that "This debate is intended only for issues related to science, not for arguments from non-scientific reasons" is invalid because both systems are faith-based enterprises. My argument requires the use of some obscure figures, so please bear with me.

The global average life expectancy of humans is 66.12 years as of 2008. In the US, that expectancy is around 78 years. The average American comes into a vague understanding of RD during the latter years of their compulsory education (~15-17 years old). Meaningful employment in a field requiring an advanced understanding of RD begins around age 24. Automatic trust of people who are employed in fields requiring an advanced understanding of anything begins around age 5, which I regard as a bad thing. Retirement age for the average American is 65. That leaves 41 years of active study on average into the science surrounding RD.

The scientific method calls for postulation, theory-forming, testing, observing and adjusting hypotheses based on the results of these tests. The human life expectancy much less the active employment span is insufficient to complete the scientific method regarding the accuracy of RD. For the same reason, the THEORY of evolution is now and will never be more than a theory. And you cannot use one theory to prove another, it's circular logic. But I digress. Just because carbon behaves in a certain manner for 41 years or even for 300 years (or however long we've been observing it) doesn't mean that it has behaved that way for it's alleged billions of years of existence. The reason is Potentiality. Is it not just as likely that carbon 14 is subject to potentiality (it does come from cosmic rays) and therefore is quantified only when observed? According to the concept of potentiality, scientists are finding Carbon 14 behaving in a certain way or in a certain place because they are looking for it in a certain place or for it to behave in a certain way.

RD places the creation of the earth in the neighborhood of 4.6 billion years ago based on the radiological decay of a single carbon isotope over literally millions of years (remember the part where we live for 78 years). It's difficult to be more specific. YEC puts the creation of the earth at 0900, Friday, 12 September 6000 BC. based on geneologies passed on by oral tradition since the dawn of man. Measured by the births and deaths of prominent men from Judeo-Christian religious/historical documents, which was a culture-based method of measuring time before the creation of more conventional metrics.

The average person must assume when learning about RD or any other facet of science that deals with events that occurred before recorded human history that the person who is teaching them is neither misinformed nor deceiving the student. They must have trust in that person. They must have faith in that person. Given the complexities of the subject and the lack of practical use to the average person, such problems are plausible. The purposes for such a deception are vast in number and varied in nature but all with the purpose of supplanting religion as a valid explanation of our origins. It "proves" itself through the spouting of impressive figures and complex math and scientific principles that cannot be verified any more accurately than Moses receiving orders from God via the burning bush. Truth told, there is only a very small slice of science that can be called verifiable fact. You trust your science to tell you what we are and I trust my religion. Both require faith that defies proof.

To summarize, because humans have neither the lifespan nor the patience if they HAD the longevity to properly and scientifically prove the accuracy of RD, it cannot be asserted with confidence that it is in fact an accurate estimate of the true age of the earth.
Debate Round No. 1
RoyLatham

Pro

1. Con claims that the restriction of the debate to scientific argument "is invalid because both systems [religion and science] are faith-based enterprises." Con did not state what it is about science he claims to be as great a leap of faith as religion. What is it? It is the case that science does reject "God the Trickster" theories in which, for example, the world might have bee created a week ago with all of the memories and evidence created concurrently. Is it that the kind of faith that Con is asserting scientists have?

It is a fundamental error to suppose that having any faith at all makes science equivalent to dogmatic religion. There is more faith and less faith, and more and less reasonable grounds for faith. The validity of scientific theories lies in there immense power to make accurate predictions. Faith is therefore justified. Moreover, scientific predictions are endlessly cross-checked using independent methods, and if an inconsistency is found the theory is abandoned or revised. That is different from dogmatic religious faith that never makes verifiable predictions and is never revised based upon contradictions with observation.

Since all religions are based upon faith, does Con consider all religions to be equally valid? Con seems to be asserting that anything involving faith is equally valid. This includes, for examples, religions demanding human sacrifice to appease volcano gods. If all religions are not equally valid, what is it that makes some more valid than others? Does agreement with physical observations count? Volcanoes do not erupt when humans fail to make sacrifices as those religions predict. Does volcano worship nonetheless remain on a par with science as equal acts of faith?

2. Con argues, "For the same reason, the THEORY of evolution is now and will never be more than a theory. And you cannot use one theory to prove another, it's circular logic." Since I never made any reference to the theory of evolution, and in particular never used it as a basis for determining the accuracy of radiometric dating, Con is asserting a non sequitur.

3. Con argues, "just because carbon behaves in a certain manner for 41 years or even for 300 years (or however long we've been observing it) doesn't mean that it has behaved that way for it's alleged billions of years of existence." I stated that there are about two dozen isotope pairs used in radiometric dating. What is the basis for Con asserting that Carbon 14 is used for dating beyond about 45,000 years? Con may also dispute my assertion that two dozen different isotopes are used, but he ought to provide grounds for disputing it.

The decay rates of the various isotope pairs cross-check each other. So it's not just carbon that must be behaving erratically, but uranium, thorium, cesium, strontium, and all the others used for dating. Moreover, there can no pattern in how each is misbehaving. For example, U235 is now decaying with a half-life of over 700 million years. For the earth to be, say, 6000 years old, U235 must have once been decaying several million times faster. C14 would have had to have undergone a different history of change of decay, speeding up by a factor of a few hundred. Similarly, all the other isotope pairs must have had different erratic histories, but if all the clocks were running at different rates, then there would be no agreement on the dating of objects by different isotopes. One cannot claim that clocks running at rates differing by factors of tens of thousands nonetheless always agree with each other.

The decay rates of the various isotopes is also cross-checked against tree-rings, coral formations, and the other physical phenomena I listed. Therefore rates of tree growth and all of the other physical factors unrelated to radioactive decay must have speed up in erratic ways to agree with radioactive decay. For example, trees must have had about four growth cycles per year to match C14 dating, with the trees growing four times as fast in each cycle. However, there would have had to have been about 50 snow seasons per year to adjust the ice core data, with fifty times as much snow in each cycle. But if both of those things happened, then the ice core data would no longer agree with tree ring data. Sediment deposits, coral growth, and other observations must similarly have different seasonal rates, none agreeing with the others.

As isotopes decay they release energy. If isotopes once decayed a hundred or a million times faster, the energy would have been released that much faster. The extra heat would have made the earth uninhabitable. Consequently, it is not just the rates at which trees grow and snow falls that must have change, laws related to conservation of energy must have changed, so that it was possible for energy to disappear.

One cross-check on the age of the earth is rate at which heat is flowing out of the molten core. If the earth were a few thousand years only, heat must have flowed out roughly a million times faster than it now does. That extra heat would have made the earth uninhabitable. Therefore heat energy must have magically disappeared in earlier times.

In summary, what Con is claiming is not merely that there has been a change in the rate of C14 decay, but that all of the elements used for isotopes behaved differently, that energy once disappeared, that there used to be four to fifty seasons per year, and basically none of the laws of nature were then as now. This introduces the impossibility that dozens of independent clocks used for dating all running at different rates agreeing upon the times at which objects where formed and events occurred. But all the natural clocks do agree, quite well.

4. Con states, "According to the concept of potentiality, scientists are finding Carbon 14 behaving in a certain way or in a certain place because they are looking for it in a certain place or for it to behave in a certain way." If this is so, then any independent observer, free of the prejudice suggested, can use the method to get different results. Has anyone in fact used C14, or any of the other two dozen isotope pairs, "correctly" as Con supposes? The methods are now routine, like using a ruler to measure a person's height. Con is essentially claiming, analogously, that the only reason that rulers yield the typical range of height measurements of people is that they are expected to do so. If unbiased users applied rulers, we would find that people are typically only a quarter inch high. If that is so, then, in the RD world, who has used RD in an unbiased way to produce the radically different measurements claimed?

5. Con asserts, "because humans have neither the lifespan nor the patience if they HAD the longevity to properly and scientifically prove the accuracy of RD, it cannot be asserted with confidence that it is in fact an accurate estimate of the true age of the earth." Is it really true that nothing can be known outside of a single human lifespan? We know, for example, that the Civil War happened because humans have written about it. They transcribed the events on to enduring media: books, photographs, and letters. Artifacts like Civil War guns and uniforms corroborate the transcriptions. So when we put it all together, we have multiple records that provide cross-checks of the events, even though the last witness has died. Similarly, if we had nothing but a single C14 dating example, we would have justifiable doubts. But we have in fact a very large number with multiple unrelated corroborations of alternative methods that provide the assurance we need that RD is accurate. In general, we prefer not-subjective evidence over subject evidence. The photographs and artifacts of the Civil War are less like to be embellished than the human accounts. There is no reason to suppose than human witnesses of RD dating is required, because we have objective physical evidence.

The resolution is affirmed.
meespr

Con

My opponent's arguments seem to center on minutiae, although there are several well-argued points.

1. Pro claims that I failed to specify what it is about science that is as great a leap of faith as religion. This is false. To quote myself "The average person must assume when learning about RD or any other facet of science that deals with events that occurred before recorded human history that the person who is teaching them is neither misinformed nor deceiving the student. They must have trust in that person. They must have faith in that person. Given the complexities of the subject and the lack of practical use to the average person, such problems are plausible." In simpler terms, you have to trust that you're not being lied to. You have to trust someone's knowledge regarding the origins of the Earth and of Man. In that way, it is exactly the same leap of faith as with a religion.

Pro claimed that Religion "never makes verifiable predictions and is never revised based upon contradictions with observation." Allow me to correct a flaw in your understanding of religion (from your arguments, I assume you are not religious). It is absolutely untrue that religion, Christianity in particular, never revises itself. This is where the denominations come from. An idea is revised and the adherents of that revised idea break with the old idea. The only difference is that the old way rarely dies out completely. The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church are another example of religious revision in Christianity. Around two dozen books were stricken from the Bible due to their widely accepted deviance from what we now accept as religious truth (Apocrypha). Also, what happened to the concept of indulgence? For those who are unaware, the Catholic church used to offer it's members salvation and a place in Heaven for unsaved family members for a profit. Martin Luther among others challenged the religious principle behind this, gained significant support and the practice ended.

I fail to see the relevance of my opinion of the validity of all religion. All religion requires a similar commitment of faith, as does all but a very narrow subset of readily observable sciences. My assertion is meant to illustrate that, although I concede I could have done a better job in saying so.

2. I brought up the theory of evolution only as an illustration of the point that we don't live long enough to make a 100% confirmation of the accuracy of RD and to pre-empt any attempts to prove radiation decay by other theoretical means. As an aside, it is also an illustration of Science's desperate attempts to supplant religion. To be fair, I did get carried away, as I am prone to do.

3. Pro rebuts "Con argues, 'just because carbon behaves in a certain manner for 41 years or even for 300 years (or however long we've been observing it) doesn't mean that it has behaved that way for it's alleged billions of years of existence.' I stated that there are about two dozen isotope pairs used in radiometric dating." I'm not so simple that I didn't understand that. We call the device I used in my first argument an "example". It is applicable to all of the radioactive isotopes that we observe.

Pro continues, "The decay rates of the various isotope pairs cross-check each other. So it's not just carbon that must be behaving erratically, but uranium, thorium, cesium, strontium, and all the others used for dating." Firstly, I already warned against the viability of verifying a theory with another theory. Secondly, my main point is, as I go on to explain in my argument, that our understanding of Atomic/subatomic physics is less than perfect and at times vastly different from classical physics. It's not that they would be behaving erratically, but in a manner that we do not currently understand.

I understand the basic principles of RD, but as it hold no significant bearing on my life or job, it is not a high priority for advanced study. Radiation and decay, I understand a bit more thoroughly. There needs not be a change in the laws of conservation of energy for my argument to be valid, just undiscovered concepts of physics. Since you can't rule that out any more than you could have ruled out quantum physics before it's discovery, you can't rule out the possibility that RD may not be accurate. You can ASSUME that it is accurate, but you cannot state it as objective fact. Really, that is the only bone of contention that I have with my opponent's arguments.

4. Pro questions rhetorically, "Has anyone in fact used C14, or any of the other two dozen isotope pairs, 'correctly' as Con supposes?" No, because the only people who care, or have access and technical knowledge for the equipment required for that matter, are the people who lack objectivity. It's tough to get around, because there's no one who's really objective and without leaning on a subject as specific as this. You can say you're on the fence about big things like the existence of God or the relevance of NATO in the post-Soviet Union world, but when you get specific, everyone has an opinion (which is why we're here). Once again, you cannot independently and WITHOUT BIAS verify the accuracy of the process, therefore it cannot be stated as objective fact.

Yes, the methods are routine. But they're based on concepts that cannot be objectively verified. My opponent makes the claim "If unbiased users applied rulers, we would find that people are typically only a quarter inch high." in an attempt to illustrate his disapproval of my idea. But I was speaking about atomic/subatomic physics, where the laws are slightly more blurry. His exaggeration does not apply to the argument. But then he posits, again rhetorically, "If that is so, then, in the RD world, who has used RD in an unbiased way to produce the radically different measurements claimed?" The answer is that the scientists who are looking for any answer other than "God created it" MAY HAVE used it improperly and everyone is trying to back them up because it detracts from Creationism. It simply cannot be ruled out, because there are no unbiased observers. I am not implying that all scientists are rabidly anti-Creationism, but such scientists do exist, and they do exist in the RD world.

5. Oh sure, there is the passdown of data among scientists. I haven't forgotten about that. But how long has the field been around? Not all that long, which reinforces my doubts regarding the absolute accuracy of the process.

Please don't make the mistake of thinking that I wish to disprove RD. I am merely pointing out that because of the possibility of inaccuracies or biased interpretation being fed to an audience that is ignorant of the finer points of the subject, one cannot claim it is objective, absolute fact.
Debate Round No. 2
RoyLatham

Pro

1. I asked what it is about science that is based upon faith in the way that religion is based upon faith. Con clarified that the average person is told the results of science and takes the scientific results on faith. I had not supposed that Pro had confused the practice of science by scientists with belief in science by the public. What the average person does in believing or disbelieving science is not relevant to the way science itself is practiced. I agree that people sometimes have misconceptions about science, but that has nothing to do with the methods of science itself. If a person has insufficient time to study some particular scientific result, the correct attitude for that person is to have no opinion on the issue, not to suppose that his opinion is as good as anyone's. Opinions are informed by facts, and while absolute certainty is generally unachievable, the more informed opinion is better. If you want to know what time the bus is leaving, you are better off asking a person who has seen the bus schedule than one who has not. It does not make sense to value both opinions equally on the grounds that both are somehow based on faith.

Scientific results are published, so anyone can review them directly. Before the results are published a review committee examines the results to see if they meet scientific standards. Peer review is generally done anonymously to minimize bias. Scientists usually also make the raw data they collected available for review as well. There was a well-publicized case recently of the global warming "hockey stick" graph being disproved when another scientist examined the data and found a math error in the original result.

Con summarizes, "..because humans have neither the lifespan nor the patience if they HAD the longevity to properly and scientifically prove the accuracy of RD, it cannot be asserted with confidence that it is in fact an accurate estimate of the true age of the earth." This is false, because many humans have in fact done so. It's a narrow specialty, so it is well within the grasp of a single person. It's true that no one person could verify all of science, but there is no problem checking out individual results like the age of the earth. It's done repeated by qualified people for peer review, to understand the accuracy of the results, and to understand how new data and new methods agrees or disagrees with the previous work. If Con read the book I referenced, I suspect he would understand RD well enough to verify its accuracy, at least many people could. It isn't 1% as difficult as something like global warming science, for example.

2. We agree the Theory of Evolution is not relevant to the present discussion.

3. "I already warned against the viability of verifying a theory with another theory." Verifying one theory with another is common sense and universally accepted. Con characterizes everything as a theory, and there is some truth in that characterization, as nearly everything is at least theoretically subject to error.

Let's suppose that in a court case the prosecution offers the theory that X killed Y. The prosecutor offers three witnesses who claim they saw X kill Y, a surveillance video showing the crime, forensic evidence of fingerprints, powder burns, and the bullet coming from the defendant's gun, and the defendants signed confession. Would this be a solid case? Not according to Con's logic, because each piece of evidence is just another theory, and, according to Con, one theory cannot be used to confirm another. Con's logic is that accepting any of the evidence amounts to an act of faith entirely equivalent to embracing any one of a thousand religions. The jury did not actually witness the crime, so by the logic applied, it is all just faith.

The independent methods for verifying radiometric dating involve theories like trees growing with yearly rings, snow falling in yearly cycles, and so forth. All agree. That is not a matter of faith, it is solid evidence.

"There needs not be a change in the laws of conservation of energy for my argument to be valid, just undiscovered concepts of physics." An exception to the law of conservation of energy has to be one of the undiscovered concepts of physics. Also, there have to undiscovered concepts that change tree rings, winter snowfall, heat flow from the core of the earth, and a dozen other fundamental understandings. Moreover, the new undiscovered concepts have to be different for each isotope used in RD. Some isotopes have to decay a hundred times faster and other a million time faster than has ever been observed. It is not the case that just one new undiscovered concept would do, there have to be dozens, and all the new concepts have to fortuitously work to bring all the different measurements in line. Heat must flow faster to exactly match faster isotope decay. Trees must grow four times faster in past years while snow falls fifty times as much in those same years.

Undiscovered principles of physics usually extend the applicability of theories to new domains, not change past results. Con's supposition requires a dozen established laws to change dramatically in ways that still cross-check each other.

4. Con supposed that massive bias affected use of RD methods. I asked if any unbiased people ever used the methods, "No, because the only people who care, or have access and technical knowledge for the equipment required for that matter, are the people who lack objectivity." (1) There are plenty of people who care, Con being one of them. (2) There are no restrictions on the training required. Anyone can take the technical courses without any test of beliefs. (3) The labs that date objects advertise on the Internet and will sell services to anyone. Pieces of one object could be sent to labs in different countries to assure independence. (4) The books and journal articles explaining the technology and how to use it are freely available to anyone.

It really doesn't take much training to count tree rings, for example. There is some skill involved, but scarcely a PhD in Astrophysics. How can it be that all the people ho count them are somehow "biased"? The same goes for sediment layers and ice cores.

5. "The answer is that the scientists who are looking for any answer other than "God created it" MAY HAVE used it improperly and everyone is trying to back them up because it detracts from Creationism. It simply cannot be ruled out, because there are no unbiased observers." Polls reveal that a majority of scientists believe in God. So how can it be that all 100,000 (or so) of the earth scientists in the world are willing to lie to uphold radiocarbon data. It is simply not even slightly credible. In science, you get famous and successful not for upholding theories, but rather for overthrowing them. Think Einstein or Bohr, for example, or Michelson upsetting the widely held theory of the ether. The practice of science works exactly the opposite from what Con supposes.

In this debate, Con has consistently overlooked all the confirming data from methods unrelated methods of dating. The cross-checking is dismissed with no more than the completely false notion that one cannot confirm a theory with a theory. Data from one method confirms the data from other unrelated methods. I challenge Con to explain how it happens that sediment data from Australia confirms ice cores from Antarctica, tree rings from Europe, as well as RD in establishing a time line for events. it is on thing to claim that a clock is broken. It is another thing to claim that a dozen clocks operating on different principles are all broken, and all broken in such a way that they nonetheless always show the same time.
meespr

Con

meespr forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 3
5 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 5 records.
Posted by TheSkeptic 7 years ago
TheSkeptic
"For the same reason, the THEORY of evolution is now and will never be more than a theory. "

I seriously want to smash my face in a table the next time I hear this =_=.
Posted by RoyLatham 7 years ago
RoyLatham
It is indeed strange, but it is a consequence of the extraordinary human ability to rationalize. The same ability is used by believers in 9/11 conspiracy, by believers in the efficiency of socialist government, and any number of thoroughly disproven ideas that are fervently defended. All pose similar problems in debate.
Posted by Mdal 7 years ago
Mdal
I can respect that position, wanting to see how people with differing beliefs might argue a point...but on its face from a scientific point of view (my own) it seems strang.
Posted by RoyLatham 7 years ago
RoyLatham
There is religious belief called Young Earth Creationism (YEC) that believes the earth is only about 8,000. They claim that there is no scientific evidence that the world is older. The general approach is to take the handful, about a dozen examples, of erroneous radiometric dating errors appearing in the literature and supposing that such errors disprove the methods, despite hundreds of thousands of confirming uses.

There are a few YEC believers on this site, so it's possible that the challenge will be accepted. I'm interested in debate techniques for debating people with unusual beliefs. It's not as easy as it seems, because it's difficult to find any common ground in the debate.
Posted by Mdal 7 years ago
Mdal
I am confused...why would people argue against this? The argument could also be something like this: Radio waves can transmit information...or gravity tugs on stuff. Carbon dating is a scientific practice which has been used for years...
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